“Russia has sent sophisticated anti-ship missiles to Syria, US media report.
The New York Times quotes unnamed US officials as saying the missiles could be used to counter any potential future foreign military intervention in Syria.”
VIDEO FOOTAGE OF BRAHMOS LAUNCH
Assad Ally Bolsters Warships in Region; U.S. Sees Warning
Russia has sent a dozen or more warships to patrol waters near its naval base in Syria, a buildup that U.S. and European officials see as a newly aggressive stance meant partly to warn the West and Israel not to intervene in Syria’s bloody civil war.
Russia’s expanded presence in the eastern Mediterranean, which began attracting U.S. officials’ notice three months ago, represents one of its largest sustained naval deployments since the Cold War. While Western officials say they don’t fear an impending conflict with Russia’s aged fleet, the presence adds a new source of potential danger for miscalculation in an increasingly combustible region.
“It is a show of force. It’s muscle flexing,” a senior U.S. defense official said of the Russian deployments. “It is about demonstrating their commitment to their interests.”
The buildup is seen as Moscow’s way of trying to strengthen its hand in any talks over Syria’s future and buttress its influence in the Middle East. It also provides options for evacuating tens of thousands of Russians still in Syria.
The deployments come at a time of heightened tensions. U.S. officials said Thursday that another round of Israeli airstrikes could target a new transfer of advanced missiles, anti-ship weapons known as Yakhont missiles, in the near future. Israeli and Western intelligence services believe the missiles, which have been sold by Russia to Syria in recent years, could be transferred to the militant Hezbollah group within days. Russia has strongly protested previous Israeli strikes in Syria.
Yakhont missiles are an offensive system. Moscow has told Western diplomats it will supply only defensive weaponry to the Syrian regime. But U.S. and Israeli officials have long been worried about Syria’s existing stocks of the weapon. If transferred to Hezbollah or other militant groups, they could provide a serious threat to both Israeli and U.S. warships in the region.
Russian Navy and foreign ministry officials didn’t respond to requests for comment about the deployments of the warships.
Russia supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while the U.S. has called for his removal. Russian President Vladimir Putin signaled this week that he is pushing ahead with the sale of an advanced air-defense system to Syria, according to U.S. intelligence reports, over Israeli and U.S. objections.
Hezbollah and its chief sponsor, Iran, also have rallied around Mr. Assad, sharing Russia’s interest in keeping the regime in place. Recent Israeli airstrikes inside Syria have targeted missiles believed to be bound from Tehran to Hezbollah, Western intelligence officials have alleged.
Moscow and Washington have worked publicly in recent days to assemble an international conference involving Damascus. But expectations are low that the meeting could lead to a political transition, as tensions have heightened around the region, and with the U.S. and Russia backing opposing camps.
Amid the strategic turmoil, U.S. and European defense officials say Russia appears to be trying to project power to deter outside intervention in Syria, which it sees as its foothold in the Middle East.
U.S. and European officials believe Mr. Putin wants to prevent the West from contemplating a Libya-style military operation inside Syria. President Barack Obama doesn’t want to intervene militarily, but he has said the calculation could be changed by suspected use of chemical weapons by Mr. Assad’s forces. Likewise, the Pentagon has stepped up military contingency planning in the event of spillover of fighting into neighboring Turkey and Jordan, both close U.S. allies.
Moscow’s deployments appeared designed to show that Russia intends to keep Tartus, its only remaining military outpost outside the former Soviet Union, senior U.S. officials said. Though spare by Western military standards—it consists of a pair of piers staffed by about 50 people, according to Russian data—the base provides a toehold in the region that has grown in strategic and symbolic importance for Moscow.
“It’s not really a base,” said Andrei Frolov, an analyst at CAST, a Moscow military think tank. “It’s more like a service station” that can do limited resupply and very modest repairs.
U.S. officials say, however, that Russia has drawn up plans to expand the base, which it negotiated with Mr. Assad.
Washington’s interest in the base has likewise grown—not because the U.S. sees it as a threat, but because U.S. officials believe that by assuring Russia that the base will remain under Moscow’s control in a post-Assad Syria, the U.S. has a better chance of convincing Mr. Putin to break with Mr. Assad.
Mr. Obama held out some hope Thursday that the coming conference with Russia would help the major powers reach a consensus on how to end the bloodshed in Syria.
“There’s no magic formula for dealing with an extraordinarily violent and difficult situation like Syria’s,” Mr. Obama said at a news conference in Washington with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “I do think that the prospect of talks in Geneva involving the Russians…may yield results.”
Moscow’s diplomacy notwithstanding, U.S. officials believe that in addition to the naval deployments, Russia is moving more quickly than previously thought to deliver S-300 surface-to-air defense systems to Syria.
U.S. officials say the S-300 system, which is capable of shooting down guided missiles and could make it more risky for any warplanes to enter Syrian airspace, could leave Russia for the port of Tartus by the end of May.
Russia’s delivery of such missiles could create a new dilemma for Israel, which has carried out what Western intelligence officials say are at least three airstrikes inside Syria in recent months against suspected weapons shipments to Hezbollah. Israel has yet to target Syrian forces directly, seeking to avoid direct conflict with Mr. Assad, say U.S. and Israeli officials.
Russian officials first announced the navy was deploying ships to the eastern Mediterranean near Syria starting in late 2012, but few details about the deployments have been made public.
In January, the Russian navy used these and other ships to conduct what it billed as some of the largest exercises in recent years in the eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea for a force that has had relatively low international presence since the Cold War. State media reported that as many as 21 ships and three submarines were involved, as well as planes and other forces.
Before the start of the Syrian civil war, Russian ships stopped at the port only irregularly. But in the last three months, 10 to 15 Russian ships have been near the Syrian port at any one time, U.S. and European officials say. They say Russia currently has 11 ships in the eastern Mediterranean, organized into three task forces, that include destroyers, frigates, support vessels and intelligence-collecting ships. Another three-ship group of amphibious vessels is headed to the region. But U.S. officials said they expect that group to replace one of the groups currently in the region.
“You have more and more warships” concentrated between Cyprus, Lebanon and Turkey, a senior European defense official said, adding that Russia is protecting its sphere of influence in the Middle East and “staking its claim” to Tartus.
Many of the Russian ships in the eastern Mediterranean have stopped in Syria, conducted exercises, port visits or training in the area, and then moved on to the Gulf of Aden to conduct counterpiracy missions, U.S. and European officials said. Others in the aging fleet have returned to Black Sea ports for repairs and resupply in recent weeks, Russian state media reported.
The stops in Syria, according to a U.S. official, signal that Russia wants to show it remains a naval power, even though its strength is diminished from the Soviet era and no longer matches Western capabilities.
“They are stretching their legs,” the official said. “They are very much interested in letting people know they are a blue-water navy.”
The Soviets had ships in the Mediterranean during the Cold War whose mission was to counter the U.S. Navy’s 6th Fleet. The Russians ended that mission in 1992. But in the last few months, the Russian navy has talked about reviving a similar mission to signal Russia’s influence in the region.
For now, senior U.S. officials said the Russian buildup “is not seen as threatening” to the U.S. Navy, which has two destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean and an aircraft carrier battle group in the Persian Gulf.
“Nobody is forecasting the battle of Midway in the eastern Med,” the senior defense official said.